Drown­ing in red tape

More than a year af­ter they were nearly killed in a boat crash, in­ves­ti­ga­tions are go­ing nowhere. KIERAN BANKS re­ports

NT News - - NT WEEKEND -

AS the sun set on an idyl­lic day of fish­ing off Charles Point, Dale Mar­shall and mate Jaron Early had no idea of the 45m barge bear­ing down upon them.

The pair were joined by Mr Mar­shall’s fa­ther-in-law Michael Mizen and brother-in-law Damien Pell, sit­ting on the back of the 8m fi­bre­glass boat with their fish­ing lines in the wa­ter.

The clock ticked to­wards 6pm on a Dry sea­son evening in May — peace and quiet of four blokes cast­ing into the open ocean.

Sud­denly, the tran­quil­lity was shat­tered.

Mr Mar­shall stood up to find the barge, be­lieved to be the MV Jane

Virgo owned by Shore­barge, just sec­onds away from plough­ing through his boat.

The next two hours he and the three fishos would spend in dark­ness, cling­ing to Esky lids and bob­bing in tiger shark-in­fested wa­ters, were just the be­gin­ning of an 18-month nightmare, search­ing for an­swers.

RUN­NING out of fuel 2km from shore only seemed like a mi­nor hic­cup to an oth­er­wise per­fect day on the wa­ter. One that could be eas­ily fixed.

Mr Mar­shall’s mum was en route to bring out a re­fill to get the boys home.

Be­fore his mum had en­tered the wa­ter, dis­as­ter struck.

With im­pact im­mi­nent, Mr Early grabbed Mr Mizen, aged 67, and jumped in the deep blue ocean.

Mr Mar­shall and his brother-in­law tossed them­selves into the sea.

“My­self and Damien only had time to grab on to some­thing and it hit. We jumped out the back.

“I think I was swim­ming down, but I thought I was go­ing to get eaten up by the prop. Then that didn’t hap­pen and I came to the sur­face. I came to the sur­face and Damien came to the sur­face,” Mr Mar­shall says.

When the two par­ties resur­faced, they were 60m apart from each other with sun­light fad­ing.

The boat’s bow, with its lights still beam­ing, was stick­ing out of the wa­ter.

“We swam over to the boat and grabbed an Esky lid and an Esky that was float­ing and we held on to the boat for a lit­tle while, and talked about whether it was a good idea or not to go down and get the EPIRB. Then the boat started sink­ing so we swam away from it. We started talk­ing about hav­ing a swim, but Mike and Damien weren’t keen on that. They didn't think they were go­ing to make it or that it was a good idea.”

The four men were bob­bing in the wa­ter, scream­ing and whistling for any­one to come and res­cue them.

“Af­ter a while of try­ing to keep this Esky up­right, it was just drain­ing our en­ergy.

“Mike was on an Esky lid by him­self and, with­out Jaron there, I think it would have been a lot dif­fer­ent.

“He’s ripped the lid off the Esky — I don't know how he did it.

“It was a big Esky lid and af­ter that point we had two on each Esky lid, and you could get your torso out of the wa­ter.

“... I was fo­cused on get­ting back to land. Jaron was fo­cused on sur­viv­ing. He was keep­ing us all to­gether and it would have been dif­fer­ent with­out him out there.”

In the dis­tance, the glow­ing nav­i­ga­tion lights of Mr Mar­shall’s mother’s boat were the signs of sal­va­tion.

The quar­tet watched the lights travel up and down the coast, then out of sight.

It was by chance Mr Mar­shall’s mother and her part­ner stopped as an­other boat ap­proached them.

The boat con­tin­ued straight past them, but it was the moment of si­lence with the hum of the out­board mo­tor dulled that lead to the cou­ple hear­ing the stricken fish­er­men’s call for help.

Mr Early said the cou­ple spot­ted a cush­ion float­ing in the wa­ter and headed to­wards the shouts.

He said their first con­cern was to get the older Mr Mizen out of the wa­ter.

“The first thing was to get the old fella. He’d gone into hy­per­ther­mia, so we got him in the boat. Put a sil­ver blan­ket on him to keep him warm. I thought he was go­ing to die on that floor.”

They all sur­vived. But or­deal was far from over.

STILL reel­ing from the stress of spend­ing two hours float­ing in choppy seas and 10 to 15 knot winds off Charles Point, the fishos hoped an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the in­ci­dent would give them some an­swers.

The ini­tial in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the in­ci­dent lead by the wa­ter po­lice was taken over by the na­tion’s peak body for wa­ter safety, the Aus­tralian Mar­itime Safety Au­thor­ity.

The Mar­itime Safety Branch in­ter­viewed Mr Early and Mr Mar­shall fol­low­ing the crash, but in Mr Mar­shall’s mind, failed to take a proper state­ment.

The men were ques­tioned over the boat’s light­ing and if they had con­sumed al­co­hol.

An AMSA in­ves­ti­ga­tor was as­signed to the case in Novem­ber 2016 and the first of­fi­cial state­ment was taken a month later.

The last con­tact Mr Mar­shall had with AMSA of­fi­cials was in Septem­ber, when they flagged an up­date was due to be given to the sur­vivors early this month.

Mr Mar­shall said they were still wait­ing for that up­date.

More than 18 months af­ter the crash and AMSA are yet to com­plete the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

A spokesman for AMSA de­nied the in­ves­ti­ga­tion had been de­layed and said it was in “its fi­nal stages”.

“This is a com­plex in­ves­ti­ga­tion with a sig­nif­i­cant amount of ev­i­dence to be an­a­lysed. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion is on­go­ing and it would be in­ap­pro­pri­ate to com­ment fur­ther,” he said. “To de­ter­mine the facts and cir­cum­stances that lead to the in­ci­dent, AMSA has needed to seek, ob­tain and an­a­lyse a sig­nif­i­cant amount of ev­i­dence. AMSA is com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing that a con­clu­sion is reached as soon as pos­si­ble.”

Shore­barge man­ag­ing direc­tor Arthur Hamil­ton de­clined a re­quest for a sit-down in­ter­view with the

NT News and re­ferred ques­tions re­gard­ing to the in­ci­dent to a PR firm.

Through a spokes­woman, Mr Hamil­ton said Shore­barge had co­op­er­ated with the AMSA in­ves­ti­ga­tion. He re­fused to com­ment on the

Pic­ture: PATRINA MALONE

Dale Mar­shall and Jaron Early want an­swers from the Aus­tralian Mar­itime Safety Au­thor­ity af­ter the 18-month-long in­ves­ti­ga­tion into how a barge col­lided with their boat in Dar­win Har­bour

Shore­barge’s MV Jane Virgo land­ing barge

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